Sal Mineo - "The Switchblade Kid"
Born of Sicilian emigrant parents in Harlem in 1939, Sal Mineo spent his early years running with the local tough Bronx street gangs. By the age of 8 he was thrown out of parochial school, so his mother enrolled him in acting and dancing classes. In 1950 he excelled in his first stage appearance, The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams and starring Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. He also played a young prince opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I, and later, a young boy in Tony Curtis's Six Bridges To Cross.
From the Bronx to Hollywood
After a few lesser films his breakthrough was Rebel Without A Cause , in which he gave an impressive performance as a gay teen smitten with James Dean's character, a role that saw him nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
In Rebel Without A Cause, the interaction between Jimmy Dean and sixteen year old Sal Mineo scandalised a homophobic Hollywood. These magic moments set fire to a rumour mill that is still burning 56 years later. They also gave hope and hero-worship to millions of confused misunderstood teens who no longer wanted to live between the straight lines drawn by previous generations.
James Dean's Jim Stark and Sal Mineo's Plato Crawford in Rebel Without A Cause
James Dean and Sal were briefly re-united in Giant , when Sal appeared in a few scenes with Jimmy, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. But shortly after James Dean was killed in a car accident. Sal Mineo was devastated and turned to Natalie Wood, another member of their "brat pack," in a very public display of confused sexuality.
Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood
But Natalie, who had also received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work on Rebel Without A Cause, quickly moved on as she developed into one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the big screens in Hollywood.
Looking like a real Sicilian, Sal steps out in Hollywood
Sal Mineo's other stand-out performance was in Exodus , earning him another Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Dov Landau, a Jewish holocaust survivor, who wants to join a radical Zionists underground network after the war. He is accepted into the group when Dov finally admits he was a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz and raped by the Nazis.
Sal had a reputation for getting way too close to his movie co-stars including James Dean and director Nicholas Ray in Rebel Without A Cause and Exodus co-star Jill Haworth, who was 15 years old at the time. They went on to have a long affair which confused the gossip media and casting agents.
Even though Sal Mineo appeared in dozens of other films including The Longest Day, Tonka, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Young Don't Cry and Escape from the Planet of the Apes, his behaviour was increasingly becoming out and proud. Not a popular position in Hollywood at the time.
Sal Mineo went on to become a stage director receiving recognition for his work on the internationally successful play Fortune in Men's Eyes.
Outside Sal Mineo's Hollywood apartment, on the night of February 12th, 1976, a neighbour heard Sal calling for help and then found him in the gutter, stabbed to death at the age of 37.
He had not been robbed and a white male with long hair was seen running from the scene. His accused killer, Lionel Ray Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1979. With no apparent motive for the murder, the conviction remains controversial. Williams claims he was innocent and that homophobia impeded the search for Sal's real murderer.
He is buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.
With the news James Franco has just acquired the rights to make a biopic called "Sal" to be released in 2013, we about to get a better behind the scenes look at the proud life of Sal Mineo.
I wonder what Sal thinks of all this. Looking down on us, smoking filtered Kool cigarettes and sipping his umpteenth black coffee and sugar.
He famously said in 1975, "I'll never be mistaken for Pat Boone."